Dorothy Collins as Emily LancasterWe’ve all heard of ghost ships, right: The Flying Dutchman or the Mary Celeste, drifting at sea with no living crew on board?
Well, on Saturday night - for one night only - Bristol’s ss Great Britain became a ghost ship, or rather a ship possessed by the ghosts of its passengers, each with a gruesome story to tell.
During a seemingly normal guided tour of the vessel, we encountered a number of spectres, who offered an alternative history than the familiar “the longest ship of the period” and “she crossed the Atlantic in 14 days”.
(It’s worth remembering, of course, that the Brunel’s famous ship has its own back-from-the-dead story to tell: being retired 40 years after its 1845 maiden voyage, and scuttled in 1937 before – in 1970 – limping back to the Bristol dock at which she was built, to be restored to her former glory.)
Some of the ghosts – portrayed marvellously by young actors in a joint production with the Bristol Old Vic – were based on historical characters. Others were embellishments, or their fates imagined.
The first ghost our tour group met was Mrs Gray, the wife of celebrated merchant fleet captain John Gray. Gray commanded the ss Great Britain for 18 years before disappearing in mysterious circumstances on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Being on a ship, there was no way for the news to be communicated to shore, and the first Mrs Gray knew of her husband’s demise was when the ship docked. Clad in funereal black, our Mrs Gray (Stephanie Kempson) was doomed to spend eternity at the dockside, waiting for her husband to return.
Hal Kelly as The ButcherOn the dry dock we met nursery rhyme-singing Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins), one of the passengers to succumb to an outbreak of smallpox on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Her tale was a sad one, and told us a lot about the treatment of steerage class passengers, but was she really cast into the sea not yet dead, as her ghost suggested? And did her mother really not shed a tear?
In the ship’s galley we met The Butcher, played by Hal Kelly. His story was based on a diary entry from a passenger, which told how a drunk butcher had stuck a pig in the wrong place, and the bleeding beast had run around the ship for half an hour. But in our story, the butcher’s motives were reinterpreted as psychopathy, as the slaughterman revealed how he had learnt to prolong, and relish in, the death of an animal.
There was more psychopathy in the first class dining saloon, where bored passengers played by Julia Head and Matt Landau gorged themselves on a banquet while discussing killing animals to relieve the boredom of their voyage. But after a rat, a cat, and a fellow passenger’s Labrador, what could they torture next? Their eyes turned to the children on the tour – it was played for laughs but suffice to say the little 'uns were holding their parents’ hands a little tighter as the aristocratic apparitions pursued our tour group down the corridor with carving knives.
The Wealthy Dining Couple played by Julia Head and Matt LandauWe also met brides (Jenny Davies and Faye Bishop) a traumatised Crimean soldier (Scott Bayliss) and Sister Benedict, played by Kirsty Asher, a nun struggling with the conflict between her wrath at the immoral women sharing her third class accommodation and succumbing to one of the seven deadly sins.
This event could have been reduced to a common jump-out-of-cupboards fright fest, and I was glad that it was not. Like the best horror stories, the grisly yarns woven by the passengers of the ss Great Britain stayed with me long after I had left the dock, and was tucked up safe in my own bed.
Photographs by John Rowley courtesy of the ss Great Britain Trust
An-Ting ChangThe first of the fifth series of Brilliant Young Musicians in Saint Peter’s Church began in great style (Sunday, October 23) with a recital given by the young Taiwanese pianist An-Ting Chang.
Chang graduated in 2007 from the National Taiwan University, majoring in chemistry. However she chose a career in music, studying in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is still a PhD student in performance practice. Not content with developing a career as a pianist, she has begun experimenting with music and multimedia, through the ‘Concert Theatre’ she has created.
With all the music in her programme relating to the natural world, Chang called her recital, ‘The Carnival of Animals’. She began with Robert Schumann’s studies known as Papillons. Written when Schumann was but twenty years old, this group of twelve delicate miniatures floats past us like butterflies on a hot summer day.
Some of the butterflies are brightly coloured, in major keys, while others are portrayed in more sombre minor keys. These were all played with the rich variety of mood which they deserve.
This was followed by the evening's first appearance of the cuckoo: Le Coucou written by the French baroque composer and harpsichordist, Louis-Claude Daquin. Originally a movement from a harpsichord suite, we heard the distinctive two-tone call of the cuckoo recur endlessly in a variety of keys. This was a very robust cuckoo, portrayed with real vigour and technical skill.
Chang followed the butterflies with a very different piece, The Maiden and the Nightingale, by the twentieth century Spanish composer, Enrique Granados. This describes a love-torn maiden singing mournfully to the sound of a nightingale.
Her plangent song, based on a folksong from Valencia, is replete with Spanish rhythms, and redolent of a sad event played out on a warm summer’s night in Granada, with the song of nightingales filling the air.
Played caressingly by Chang, it was a dramatic contrast to her next choice - the Flight of the Bumble Bee composed by Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestra. This version for solo piano was transcribed by Sergei Rachmaninov. It is a virtuoso display of semi-quavers played with huge enthusiasm and technical skill. This was an angry bumble bee, not to ignore!
From an irritating and potentially malevolent insect Chang led us to the river bank with Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Die Forelle - The Trout - the introductory song in Schubert’s much loved song cycle. This version is surprisingly troubling.
Of course, there is the description of the trout lurking in a millstream on a summer’s evening, but Chang’s powerful playing made much of the blood-curdling battle between the fisherman and the trout, killed, inevitably in cold blood.
What a contrast to Debussy’s Poisson d’Or, from his Images Book II. This is a much more placid piece, perhaps inspired by the sight of a goldfish swimming monotonously in the security of its bowl - its gilded scales flashing in the light.
In reality it is claimed that the piece is inspired by two golden fish on a Japanese lacquer panel, which Debussy owned. Even he was swept up in the huge interest in the Orient, which dominated early twentieth century taste. Two well-known Chopin waltzes followed.
These may well have been familiar, and lacking a little in sensitivity. However, I doubt whether anyone in the audience was aware that the first, the Minute Waltz, had been inspired George Sand’s dog, chasing its own tail, while the second was inspired by George Sand’s cat, Valdeck, the yearning long notes imitating the sound of cats.
The first half ended with Aaron Copland’s The Cat and Mouse, taking its cue from one of La Fontaine’s Fables. There was much energetic playing as the turbulent relationship between the cat and mouse is played out. There were brilliant musical flourishes, and the final pleading chords of the mouse left much to the imagination. May be the mouse did get away...
After the interval we were treated to the whole of Daquin’s Troisieme Suite, of which Le Coucou had been a taster. This time though it was LA Coucou, the same music, but played with a gentle femininity - in contrast to the raucous mate heard in the first half. The suite ended with a lovely rondo, La Tendre Silvie, played with all the tenderness and love the work demanded.
The concert finished with Le Carnival des Animaux, undoubtedly Saint Saens’ most popular work. Originally written for a variety of instruments, this version was adapted for solo piano by Chang herself. There was the familiar cast list including another cuckoo! This one, though, exhausted after performing so much this evening, is calling in a rather ‘tired’ minor mode. If only cuckoos were so commonly heard in rural Wiltshire!
There was the heavy-footed elephant, the chattering hens and the ponderous tortoise, all vividly portrayed. Perhaps The Swan, the best known of the movements, suffered from insufficient emphasis on the plangent lyrical line, lost as it was in the rippling waves.
It was a lovely concert - one made all the more memorable by Chang’s introduction and explanation of the pieces. Not only did we learn so much about the pieces, but we were enveloped in her infectious enthusiasm. Perhaps it will not be so much the music, but An-Ting Chang’s infectious smile, humour and charm we shall remember from this evening. Please come again!
Alison Reid in An Elephant in the GardenA group of children from St Katharine’s School watched An Elephant in the Garden, a play based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, to support their studies into the World Wars. Milo Davison (10) reports.
On Friday I went to see An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo at the Corn Exchange in Newbury. We have been reading Michael Morpurgo at school and studying the First and Second World Wars.
I thought it was excellent because it was all done by one person. That person was acting it out like she was reading it to us. It was all done so well.
It had really good scenes in it my favourite scene was when Lizzie met Peter in the hay. Alison Reid (the actor who did it) also had to do all the right accents and had to do the right thing when the right sound effect came up.
There were some parts that were not like the book. For instance they missed out main character, Karli, but i still think the woman did quite well to fit it in an hour.
The story is about a lady remembering her life. She and her family were at her uncle's house and were having an argument about whether Hitler was good or bad. And they thought that Hitler was going to start a war.
When he did the father went off to war first to France then to Russia.
The mother decided to get a job in the zoo. Where they live, Dresden, which was one of the only cities in Germany which hadn't been bombed. If it was all the zoo animals would have to be shot. On Lizzie's birthday the air raid sirens went off and the mother took a baby elephant with them so with thousands of other refugees they all went off but then suddenly the mother went off in a complete other direction!
After hours of walking they eventually arrived at the uncle's house. There was no one there. They decided to put the elephant in the barn but when they got in there a British pilot was asleep on the hay. The mother held the man hostage eventually they made friends but the German soldiers arrived! So the man (Peter) had to pretend that he was Lizzie's brother.
After that they got away with it Lizzie found out that she loved Peter. Peter had to lead them to the Americans, so Peter lead them on with his compass. They carried on for a week until Lizzie fell ill. They sought out refuge and found a house.
When they came in Lizzie got some rest and became better. When she went out in the house she took Peter's compass. But a man who helped own the house took the compass and found it was British and he reported them to the police so they had to leave.
When they were about to go they had to take a bunch of choir children with them. After about another week they found the Americans and the Americans put them in a camp. When they got out Peter and Lizzie got married. So it all ended in a happy ending.